Why a Daytona 500 breakthrough has eluded Brad Keselowski

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Like so many sublimely talented restrictor-plate drivers before him, Brad Keselowski somehow still lacks a Daytona 500 victory.

But the Team Penske driver doesn’t lack for awareness and knowledge of what it will take for a long-awaited breakthrough in the signature race, and he was reminded of the winning key while recently browsing a military handbook.

“(It was) on how to handle different things, all kinds of different game plans, strategies for attacks,” Keselowski told reporters on a national media call last week. “One of the things in the back of the book is, ‘Remember, everything here is for normally trained soldiers going up against another normally trained soldier.’ There’s no way to prepare for a kamikaze, no way to train for somebody that does crazy shit.

“I read that book and I laughed because that’s a lot how the 500 is.  Moves that should work don’t work because for whatever reason that race gets people amped up, crazy, and they do weird things. And so your normal playbook, a lot of times it doesn’t work for the 500. It’s part of the randomness of the race.”

With a series-best six wins at Daytona and Talladega, best on plate tracks among active drivers, Keselowski will enter Sunday’s Daytona 500 trying to snap a 0 for 9 record in the Great American Race – but he takes some solace in the company he keeps.

It took Dale Earnhardt, the winningest driver in Daytona history, 20 tries to win the season opener. Darrell Waltrip won in his 17th attempt. In 17 tries, Tony Stewart never won it despite four victories in the July race.

Besides Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. (0 for 14), Kyle Busch (0 for 13) and Clint Bowyer (0 for 13) are among the active notables still winless in the Daytona 500.

“I think it’s an astute observation, one that’s not lost on me,” Keselowski said of the long waits for several big names such as himself. “I think the moves that should work and normally would work on plate tracks don’t work on the 500 because of kind of the chaos of that race. It’s almost like you need a different playbook for the 500 than you do a normal plate race. I know that’s kind of hard to explain.

“A lot of your success is dictated by others specific to getting crashed out. It makes it very difficult, especially for me and probably drivers like Kyle would probably say the same thing. It makes it very difficult for us because we’ve built a playbook of things we feel good about and we know are the right moves. They’ve worked for us on the other plate tracks, and they don’t work at the 500 because of the randomness of that race. It’s frustrating.”

The 2018 season renewed the urgency of ending that frustration.

With victories at the Brickyard 400 (the first for team owner Roger Penske) and the Southern 500, Keselowski added two “major” wins to his resume, which leaves the Daytona 500 as the glaring omission.

“Last year after winning Darlington and Indianapolis, gosh, the thrill from that, I’m still kind of on a high from that,” he said. “That was almost six months ago.

“But Daytona is, of course, the 500, one major I don’t have. I feel like it’s a race we’ve been competitive at.  We had opportunities to win it.  For a number of reasons, it hasn’t come together, which is sometimes unsettling.  People ask me all the time, ‘What race is the one that got away?’  It’s the 500, has been so far. I want to change that.”

He has been close to winning several times.

In 2014, he finished third after being outdueled by Dale Earnhardt Jr on the last restart. In 2015, a blown engine eliminated his No. 2 Ford from contention with 40 laps remaining (in a race won by his teammate, Joey Logano). Crashes have knocked him out of the past two 500s with strong cars.

“(Survival) has been the hardest part for me,” Keselowski said. “I feel we’ve been good enough to win it multiple times.  We get caught up in somebody else’s wreck or problem. I think you see that a lot.

Besides the luck factor, first things first, you got to be running at the end of that race.  For whatever reason, I think maybe because it’s the first race of the year, maybe because it’s one of the biggest races of the year, I’m not entirely sure, but the Daytona 500 has traditionally been a race of very high attrition. Getting to the end has been very difficult for us.”

NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte, who was Earnhardt’s crew chief for the ’14 win and two prior runner-up finishes, said the pressure compounds the difficulty level for even the best drivers.

“The guy that wins the Daytona 500 is the one that was fortunate enough to make zero mistakes in the last 20 laps,” Letarte said. “Because it builds to a crescendo like no other race in the world. It just builds and builds and builds over three hours. And you know when you leave pit road for the last time, and you can see the energy, all the drivers know it.

“They make very few moves until they’re very calculated. In most races, you can make mistakes in the last few laps of a race and still have a chance to win it. In the Daytona 500, you just can’t.”

And it might actually be tougher for drafting aces such as Keselowski

“I think a lot of people see them as the most threat, so I think they get the least amount of help,” Letarte said. “While you would think they would get the most, I think if you have a chance to hang out any of those big names, that’s who you hang out. Because not all mistakes are a mistake, sometimes you zig, and you just know the guy behind you is going to zig, and he zags. And you’re done.”

“It’s a chess match. It’s months and months and months for one 2.5-mile lap. There is no guarantee you’re ever going to win this race. All you really do is try to be one of the players with 5 miles to go. That race builds like no other. You can just feel it every lap.”

That makes preparing for the race tricky for Keselowski, whose study of military tactics speaks to his meticulously analytical style. While the research can help in some Daytona 500s that unfold as strategical masterpieces, it’s much less effective when the races become crashfests that eliminated many contenders (which was true the past two years).

“Probably the worst thing you can do is be prepared for it because then you have preconceptions of moves that should work, and they don’t because the race is so random,” Keselowski said. “It actually gets you in more trouble. It’s a very, very difficult race to prepare for.”

But he will do so nonetheless, hoping that he can erase the agony of having the current “best plate driver without a Daytona 500” label.

“I’m definitely very frustrated,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it.  But on the other side, I’m confident if we keep doing the right things, not to sound too cliché, but trust the process, it will come together.  That means you put the work in, you follow the playbook the best you know how, that we developed, try to make it count.

“I feel like the car is there, the team is there, I’m there.  We’re all ready to win this race.  Hopefully the time is now this year in 2019.”